Episode 1: Road Trip Meets Education Recovery
To kick off our series, Jim Cowen sits down with Chad Aldeman of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and Christine Pitts of the Center on Reinventing Public Education to discuss highlights and concerns they’re seeing across the nation as they research K-12 recovery efforts. The group also respond to a question from Pennsylvania parent Jocelyn Pickford about how parents can engage more in local school funding decisions.
Episode 1: Road Trip Meets Education Recovery
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in the states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Today, I am joined by Chad Aldeman from the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and Christine Pitts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Chad and Christine have been our partners on a project called the Education Recovery Hub which showcases how school districts are using some of $190 billion in federal recovery funds. We’re going to talk about how America’s students are doing both academically and emotionally more than two years in the pandemic, and in what ways systemic issues that may have existed long before the pandemic—are or are not—being addressed with the historic amounts of federal funds going into schools. We’ll also take a question from Pennsylvania parent Jocelyn Pickford who wants to know how parents can get more involved in local school funding decisions.
Schools and districts are putting together some impressive programs. You’ll hear from Chad about how parents in Rhode Island are being heard about where funds should go. Christine flags a great effort in Alaska around career in technological education. But I’m a little troubled, too, after talking to Chad and Christine about whether the billions going to schools that serve historically underserved students are reaching them in transformative ways. And that’s why we’re on this road trip; to hold education and policy leaders accountable to ensure the dollars are being tracked closely and that families are a part of the solution.
Jim Cowen So Chad and Christine, thanks for both joining us here today. We’re approaching this podcast under this theme of “road-tripping.” So, before we dive into the more meaty subject of education recovery, what was one of your most memorable road trips? And what was the song that best captures it?
Christine Pitts Well, I love this question. I have many. It was really hard to choose. The one that I thought I would share with you all is when my dad, my stepdad, drove me from Oregon to North Carolina to go to college, and we took the Southern route, and we were in my periwinkle, yes, periwinkle-colored Volkswagen Golf with no AC. So, you can only imagine — it was like late August, we were so overheated, luckily the car made it, but we totally stopped along the way to like hop into rivers and lakes like with our clothes on. We would just like, go jump in and then get back in the car and keep driving. It was just a blast, and it was a way to savor some of our last kind of moments together.
And then thinking of like the best road trip song, I think it really depends on who you are with. So with him, it was anything Steve Miller band, which was his like heyday, you know, seventies in Oregon, going camping, hanging out. So every time I hear a Steve Miller band song, I always think of him.
Jim Cowen Nice. Chad?
Chad Aldeman I love Stephen Miller songs. That’s great. I would say my most memorable road trip was my future wife and I took a trip from Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had to take my roommate’s car to San Diego, California. And so we did all the way across the country. And I would say the song of that road trip was the song California by Phantom Planet. Cause we just say California in our head and whenever we got back in the car.
Jim Cowen Nice. All right. Well, Christina, I want to start with you as we get into this topic more. We’re now some two years into this massive disruptive event on so many levels, too, but just to set the tone of this conversation, how would you size up where you think we are right now in education recovery?
Christina Pitts Yeah, I think, you know, you have to put this into context of the spring 2020, when we all said we were going on extended spring break and then quickly realized it was not an extended spring break, that it was much more. And I remember talking with folks at the time about it being like a marathon, like let’s get ready. This is going to be a long haul. You know, we have to have endurance, and looking back now, it wasn’t a marathon as much as a series of sprints and across like an insane obstacle course, right? When I went into the district, I realized just how bizarre it was to react so quickly to emerging challenges and within the context of political tensions with the presidential election and racial uprising across our country and these growing disparities.
So I think today we need to be very clear with data about where we are, and that’s what CERPE tries to do and that’s what I love about the Hub is we’re elevating what’s happening in real-time. We know that suicide attempts have jumped 50% or more, especially among our high school age girls and our students of color have less resources and access to mental health supports.
We know that students of color and those coming from lower socioeconomic homes, they probably are faring a lot worse up to 12 months in math achievement right now. And teachers are reporting double the rates of student absenteeism. So, to put like a fine point on it, we’re trying to get our grounding right now as we move into the next school year. And also, what we do next matters a lot, and I really hope that you know, our education leaders, our state leaders, and policymakers can take that into consideration.
Jim Cowen You’ve both been great partners on the Edu Recovery Hub project and you’ve helped to identify a number of really interesting ways that districts in certain states are spending those recovery dollars. Everything from buying HVAC systems to paying for reading tutors. Chad, let me start with you first. What stands out? Are there some examples that have really sort of struck you as particularly promising or powerful, and are there like any trends that you think are worth noting?
Chad Aldeman Yeah, there’s a lot that sticks out to me and that like, I keep coming back to, in my mind, keep using as examples. I’ll mention a couple here. One is there’s a lot of cool stuff we’re seeing on the labor side. So, districts are responding to teacher shortages in interesting ways by offering large incentives to both attract and retain workers, particularly teachers. So, the one we highlighted on the Recovery Hub is from Atlanta. They’re paying extra money to get STEM teachers and early childhood teachers. We’ve also seen other districts like Guilford County in North Carolina and Detroit in Michigan creating large incentives to try to address their persistent shortage areas. And so we are optimistic that some of these will actually work and districts will see that they’re working, and they’ll use them going forward to continue to address shortage areas going forward.
So that’s a big one, and then there’s a lot on time, and how we give students more engagement, and there’s some, there’s lots of different ways districts are doing that. One of my favorites is from San Antonio. They are adding 30 extra days of the course of each year for the next three years through what they call “intercession days.” So they’re adding some weekend time, some extending time on days that were previously breaks for school, and as well as some in the summer, and those are optional days, and the district is thinking about them differently. So, for all different types of kids, they have a range of different approaches in terms of content is different for preschool students than it is for middle school students and high school students and different for different types of students. So not just a one size fits all approach. I really liked that as a way to give students more time. That’s the biggest thing they lost over the last two years was time engaging with their peers and with their teachers.
Jim Cowen Christine, same question for you. What stands out from what you’ve seen so far?
Christine Pitts Yeah, I think a few key trends have really been emerging for me, at least at the state level with the American Rescue plans themselves. We’ve seen some investments in the science of reading that are really doubling down on something that was coming up a lot pre-pandemic. So pre-pandemic, we were seeing a lot of news coverage about, you know, the importance of the science of reading and getting teachers trained up in that. And there’s a handful of states who have made pretty large investments in professional development around the science of reading for their teachers, not only their in-service teachers but their pre-service teachers, and Alabama actually did a unique thing where they are training teachers in the science of reading in coordination with our summer programming. So, the teachers are receiving that professional learning opportunity and then have the opportunity to turn around and provide that high dosage tutoring using their new skills in the summer programming.
Another theme that’s emerging is some very intentional investments in assessment innovation. You all know that, during the pandemic, assessment really fell way behind on the list of priorities that states and districts had. And so it’s exciting to see that we are now kind of recentering this conversation, and we’re seeing some states take a few different approaches. Connecticut and Oregon are using their funds to invest in measures of student engagement, social and emotional development, and student wellbeing. That’s an exciting approach to adding more indicators to some of those small (A) accountability systems at the state level and also just elevating those parts of students whole selves that we need to be, you know, kind of monitoring since during recovery time.
And then you have states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina who are taking kind of more of an aggressive approach investing in new assessment models altogether. So really piloting things like through year competency-based assessment models and trying to figure out how to bridge that divide between the data from some of those summative assessments and who the data needs to inform.
And then the third bucket that I’ve been seeing some really fascinating investments in is bringing cohesion to career and technical education. You know, career and technical education is something that is often an afterthought. It’s considered like an alternative program. And so investments in those programs is not really robust and sometimes lacks the connective tissue necessary to create that infrastructure for successful outcomes for kids. And so you have states like Alaska, who immediately early on in their arc development of their plan started making commitments to CTE programs across their state that were kind of already existing but weren’t really talking to one another. And this includes investing in data portal upgrades, you know, something that’s so important to know whether these programs are doing what they’re intended to do.
Jim Cowen Chad, I’ll ask you this question on the other side of this coin, what was alarming? What are some things you think that could be actually potentially dangerous or just a missed opportunity that you’ve seen so far?
Chad Aldeman Yeah, the number one thing for me that I’m afraid of is a lack of urgency. So we at the Edunomics Lab are tracking some of the feeds and how districts are spending their ESSER 3 money. The pace of spending is not as fast as it needs to be, even to be proportional, let alone to address some of the challenges that Christine flagged at the outset. So that suggests to me that there’s some lack of urgency that needs to pick up, that I would like to see faster-moving along all this stuff.
So that’s one, the second one for me is interventions that aren’t sufficient to meet the challenge. So, a couple examples there; one is, Christine mentioned some strong PD, but any type of generic teacher professional development worries me that it won’t be suitable to address some of the challenges and the scope and the scale that we’re talking about.
Similarly, on class size. So, some districts are trying to reduce class size, but the research on class size suggests that might have some effect, but only in early grades and only when the reductions are meaningful. So, if a district is reducing their class size from 24 to 23 or 22 to 21, that’s not really enough to move the needle sufficiently. And yet class size requires hiring more teachers. It’s not a great opportunity to do that right now. Given what we know in the labor market, it’s a really competitive labor market. The unemployment rate for college-educated workers is down to 2% back to where it was pre-pandemic, so it’s really hard to find talented people out there. And when it’s so competitive and so hard, that means districts are either competing with each other to hire talent or potentially not getting some of the best candidates that they would have got otherwise. And on top of all that, this is one-time money. So if districts are trying to reduce their class sizes and hiring more teachers, they’re committing to those teachers. And in a couple of years, when the money runs out, they may have to make some layoffs or other hard decisions. So, using one-time money in this more long-term way is not a great solution or strategy.
Jim Cowen Christine, is there anything you’d add to that?
Christine Pitts Yeah, you know, I just want to say that early on I think there was a lot of like attention to investments in turf, athletic equipment, some of those things. I think a lot of that, like, kind of actually was a detour from the real issues. And I just want to say, like, I haven’t seen any crazy alarming line items right now, so that’s important. The things that have stood out to me that I’ve just seen both nationally but also my own community is the lack of communication and engagement with our communities about these investment decisions.
And then secondly, just a dearth of investment in research, data, and accountability. I think that’s, it’s, it’s a little scary. Regarding the communication piece, and Chad, I’m glad you brought up class sizes. This is related, you know, we’re seeing enrollment declines. And then we’re seeing districts come out with budgets that are, you know, they need to cut staff. And then, as a mom on a PTA, you know, I have my friends coming to me asking, well, why aren’t they using the federal relief funds? And, you know, I understand, but I think we need our school leaders really coming out there with that proactive, clear, comprehensible message about why they’re making these budgeting decisions this spring. And I just really haven’t seen it, so that’s scary.
I think regarding investment in research, we need to be able to tell the story of what is happening, not just during the past two years, but moving forward. And without that proactive planning, collaborative involvement with universities, academics, nonprofits, advocates, it’s really hard for us to do that in the long run. And it’s going to mean that we can’t ensure that we know what was efficacious and actually led to true recovery.
Jim Cowen So Christine, this may have been answered by what you’ve provided there, but there’s not a lot of strings attached to these funds. Our districts, you’ve just sort of answered this, really, but about just how transparent districts are being about how this money is being spent, and that is actually one of the challenges that you have just flagged, which is the communication that’s going around with how these dollars are being spent. But are there some examples where there are some really good uses of the dollars where the communities and the districts are being super transparent about how this is going or building in data to help with that transparency?
Christine Pitts Yeah, well, I will elevate Connecticut because they’re really the superstar in this space right now, and it’s not too late for other states and districts to follow suit. Connecticut’s department of education collaborated early on with our university system, their educational service districts, and other stakeholders to create this research collaborative. And what’s important about this is they overcame a lot of the capacity needs to actually do strong evaluation of these investments by incorporating academics from universities and having these other stakeholders. They also are utilizing a pre-pandemic longitudinal statewide data system that is really going to catapult their ability to pull in the data necessary to do these types of evaluations.
That’s one example, but you know I really think, Jim, your point about no strings attached, it can feel bizarre and scary because we think about the amount of money once in a generation investment, we hear this over and over again, and without the federal government creating accountability for these funds, it’s key that our state leaders do that. You know, my fear is that on the one hand, I really want states to invest in research and evaluation to tell the stories, to use the data that leads to justice that will lead to recovery, and it will allow us to have an accurate depiction of what students are experiencing.
On the other hand, we have political races coming up, and one of my fears is that some of those data or research might be used to advance platforms in a way that’s maybe not conducive. So, this is why it’s so important that the right people are brought to the table to do this type of research and evaluation planning and that it’s done, you know, as soon as possible.
Jim Cowen Yeah. Chad, are there any examples where you’re seeing states building in approaches to better understand where programs are effective?
Chad Aldeman Yeah, Christine highlighting Connecticut is probably the leader out in the field that I’m aware of. A couple of things that I would mention is our team is trying to follow expenditures. So, how are the dollars actually being spent? And that’s really hard in particular. We don’t know how the expenditures are varying from the plans that districts put out about a year ago. We’re going into a project to try to do our best to measure that this year, this summer. The other thing I’ll say is that some states are doing a better job than others at actually tracking the data and putting out information on how districts are spending their money. So some of the leaders out there right now are Oregon and Kansas. [They] are two states that actually break out the spending in detail. So not just how much have they spent, but also what are they actually purchasing with the money.
Jim Cowen So originally, the federal recovery funds were scheduled to be distributed over three years, right? And now we’ve seen from the education department that there can be 18-month extensions in some cases. Christine, do you think that’s the right move? And if it is the right move, what do you think those cases should be?
Christine Pitts I don’t know what the cases allowable are. I think it’s been unclear whether it’s just for, you know, the capital investments and the infrastructure investments or other things. And I think there’s a way to be strategic about that as a district leader. You know, if I were to like position some big bets for those longer-term investments, I think the first thing we need to do is focus on students. Students, students, students. I feel like right now, we’re seeing a lot of discussion around, you know, different parts of the system and, you know, during COVID one of the things that happened is we were being reactive and making trade-offs as students and families were typically the one’s kind of left behind because the system and the infrastructure of schooling took a precedent. So, as we move forward, we need to consider both the immediate direct services that students and families need, like right now, and also maintain integrity to those long-term strategic goals for school improvement that we had. You know, the kids are not all right today.
Like I said, in the beginning, like we know the data has shown, but you know what, they weren’t all right before the pandemic either, and that’s really important. We’ve learned to do new things since the pandemic. We learned how to use technology in different ways. We learned how to invite community partners to the table in more authentic and meaningful ways. And if we decide to kind of like a rubber band snap back to fall 2019 and shut our doors and go about school business as usual, we will be squandering a real opportunity to create and transform like a whole new way of teaching and learning.
I think in the immediate term, we need to really prioritize accessibility to services. So how are we identifying the students who need the most help, whether it’s mental health supports or academic supports, and then also equitable investments. You know, what does it look like across your school district? And Chad’s team is kind of the go-to source for evaluating that. But this also includes things like re-engaging students in the school building, you know, you’re seeing stories of high schoolers who have gotten jobs. And they’re being promoted. They’re managers like they haven’t come back to school. We need to be reconsidering the pillars of a positive school climate.
Why are students going to come back? Why are families going to re-engage? All of those things are key, and they center students. And then doubling down on the evidence-backed interventions that we know work. And you know Tennessee’s tutoring corps. is a fantastic example of a state who invested in a big bet early on, and now they’re creating research and evaluation approaches so they can tell the story of that investment but also make pivots along the way to improve implementation. I think that type of planning is key, and I’m really hoping, like Chad said, that it’s not just planful but that we do have that sense of urgency as we move into the next few years.
Jim Cowen Even before the pandemic, we knew there were large groups of students that weren’t receiving an equitable education. Are there signs that these students in the schools that serve historically underserved populations of students are actually benefiting from the federal funds?
Chad Aldeman It’s a tough question, and we can’t pin it down yet. I will say to Christine’s framing remarks at the outset, we know that low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners suffered the most from the school closures, and so they probably have the greatest needs. The good thing from the federal governor’s perspective is that they’ve provided money that goes directly to those districts that have high concentrations of low-income students. And so some of the money is there. It can be targeted, and there are districts that are being responsible in terms of using the money to target students who are most needy. A lot of the summer programs are being targeted to first to students with disabilities or English language learners, some of the younger kids focusing on helping them get back up to speed and make sure they’re on grade level in reading proficiency. So, I think there are some positive aspects there. We’ll also know over time, thanks to an earlier federal law, we’ll know how the funds get distributed within a district. So we’ll be able to pin that down eventually going forward.
Christine Pitts Can I respond to that really quick? I just want to say, Chad, I love that you mentioned that intentionality within the law itself, that we were making investments in these communities, in the schools that need it the most. I will say that’s an input, and I’m concerned that we’re going to assume that because that was carved out, that it’s happening. And my hope is that we continue to press on this and ask questions. I just signed my own kids up for summer school this weekend, and it was insanely difficult. I was emailing the school district, just random people. I literally don’t know how to get their names on this list, and it just made me bananas knowing that during COVID, we saw our multi-lingual families really struggling to get online, to get in the system, to get services for virtual learning and I can only imagine that we’re missing kids and it’s really, it’s scary.
So, I think it’s exciting that we’ve been intentional about this upfront, and I really hope we actually continue to ask these questions as we move through.
Jim Cowen Finally, for each one of these podcasts, we want to get a parent perspective since they’ve been close to the front lines of education recovery than most anyone. So this week, our question is going to come from Jocelyn in Pennsylvania.
Jocelyn Pickford Hello, I’m Jocelyn Pickford, and I’m a mom to a fifth and a seventh-grader in Pennsylvania. I recently served on my public school board because I wanted my kids and all kids to have the best possible education. I’m especially passionate about giving students and educators access to quality curriculum. That’s why I work with the Collaborative for Student Success to promote awareness of great teaching and learning. I’m hearing from many parents and families that they feel in the dark about how COVID recovery funds are being spent in their local schools. What can they do to engage in discussions and decisions about the funds locally? And are there any examples of districts or states that are doing a great job engaging families in recovery efforts?
Christine Pitts This is a great question. It’s something I come back to all of the time, and I kind of already spoke about it. Actually, CERPE recently reviewed our large 100, 100 large and urban school district database, and we’re seeing some pockets of promising practices around parent engagement with these spending plans. A few districts are actually starting to create leadership positions for parents in boards, committees, also just in the school district itself. So that not only are parents being invited to the table, but they actually have a real stake and say in the spending plans. I think if you’re a parent and you just want to know, it feels really frustrating to reach out to your school board member, email them and not get a response back or get a link to a 500-page budget document, right? I think that’s what’s key right now is we really need that comprehensible, straightforward framework for how funds are being spent at the local level. And, you know, I think there’s something to be said for saying, you know, it can change. We can revise this as new needs come up over the next year or so, and I really hope as those revisions are made that families are brought into the loop.
Chad Aldeman Yeah, I second that. One thing I’ll just say in general is that districts want to hear from you. So district leaders want to hear from parents, and they’re trying their best to meet the needs of parents. They’re trying to get feedback, you know, that may be clunky in the sense of a survey maybe you didn’t see et cetera, but if you go to your principal at your local school or, heaven forbid, you go to a school board and speak up, those are things that you should absolutely do and say, “this would help my family and help my kids, and as a way to do that…”
The other two examples I’d give from districts that I think are interesting; one is Newark Public Schools created a “Parent U” so they can train parents to engage more effectively with the school district and the different decisions that are being made with the money. So, I think that’s promising. I also saw one in Central Falls in Rhode Island. They actually let the community vote on how to spend some money so they could propose different ideas, and then they had a vote. That seemed like a very effective use of getting engagement and getting feedback on a different expenditure.
Christine Pitts Yeah, I’ll double back on that, too, Chad. I think what I like about your examples is, and what I hope happens, is that districts will continue to communicate how they use the information from the families. One of the worst feelings, as you know a stakeholder in one of those positions, is where you’re just kind of yelling into the void, and you never know if it’s going to lead to an improvement and so I hope districts really do turn around and provide some kind of feedback about how the information was.
Jim Cowen Well, listen, I really appreciate both of your time here today for this discussion. And I appreciate what your organizations are doing also. I’ve really valued the partnership that we’ve had working on projects together and look forward to continuing that. The work that you’re doing makes a difference and we’re all better for it, so thank you.
Chad Aldeman Thank you, Jim. Thanks for having us.
Christine Pitts Thank you, Jim.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we’ll travel the country to showcase the ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools. Along the way, we’re talking to people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Got a question or insight you’d like to share about what’s going on in education? We’d love to hear it. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.